AI Online


New ideas needed for a new world

Automotive Industries has been documenting technological and manufacturing advances in the automotive industry since 1895 when it was launched as “The Horseless Age”.

Certain themes are recurring. In March 1915 our lead story was “Cut Production Waste – Modernize!” It went on to say that profitability should come from improvements in productivity rather than constantly raising the price of vehicles. In August 1925 we reported that consumers were getting “more car for their money than ever before”. There was, we told readers, a trend toward finer general appearance, increased engine power, lower servicing costs and new low price levels.

“Most other industries are still doing business on a war price basis, while automobile manufacturers not only have reduced prices 29% below the prewar level, but also have been adding constantly to the longevity and serviceability of their cars,” the article adds. Fast forward to July 1950 where readers are told about the rise of the Mexican automobile industry. Nearly a year later, in May 1951, the focus is on the Italian auto industry and the staging of the first Frankfurt International Motor Show. Materials featured in January 1960 include stainless steel and ductile iron, which was invented in 1943 by Keith Millis.

Some 56 years later all that has changed on the surface is that we are now talking about the rise of the Chinese and Indian automobile industries and the new materials are composites – with stainless steel, aluminium and iron still featuring, but in forms that a 1960s designer or engineer may not recognise. There have also been ground-breaking advances in silicones, which we focused on in August 1960. But, beneath the surface there is powerful current which is pulling the industry into a whole new era. The focus is on information and electrons rather than horsepower and fossil fuels in response to shifts in consumer demand and rafts of new legislation. What these trends reflect is the way society as a whole is changing.

Urbanites are happy not to own cars, but to pay for access to vehicles when they need them – or to simply use public transport. Manufacturing is moving closer to the markets – and is becoming personalised. We are going back to the early 1900s where vehicles were built to order and personalized – but we are doing it on a massive scale.

There are also, for the first time in decades, powerful new entrants who are unencumbered with legacy concepts of how cars are made. No longer is the competition coming (only) from a manufacturer who is making cars in a low-cost country. As we see in this edition it is possible to “print” cars and components on a production line.

Tesla is proof that electric vehicles (which predate the combustion engine seeing that we are on a bit of a nostalgia trip) provide an entry point which industry newcomers are exploiting to leapfrog older technologies and legacy systems. Even bigger opportunities or threats come from the rise of the connected car and autonomous driving.

In order to shift gear and to take advantage of the changing market existing manufacturers have to recruit and nurture young talent – millennials who are totally unencumbered by preconceived ideas. History teaches us that innovation comes from creative minds and environments in which newbies are not told “we tried that and it didn’t work”.

Some ideas are just ahead of their time – like Ferdinand Porsche building a record-breaking all-wheel drive electric car powered by a motor in each hub – 1898 when the first customer drove a Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid!